Reflecting on Studying Abroad

While I had numerous global cities to decide from for studying abroad, Barcelona left me with countless experiences that expanded my cultural awareness and prompted me to reevaluate preconceptions I had before the semester. If you are able to see past the vast tourist-oriented services and attractions, you will realize there is something about the city that you can’t quite define or sum up just by talking about its renowned clubs or paella franchises.

I had expected to hit it off with peers who shared my interests right away while abroad, but it was challenging for me to find the people who wanted to visit museums, explore the Born neighborhood’s authentic restaurants and make a plan that didn’t involve excessive drinking on the weekends. Many of my peers seemed preoccupied with filling every second they could with doing something exciting and traveling to a new city every weekend. I don’t mean to be a hypocrite, since I certainly enjoyed going to Brunch&Cake – a cute little (touristy) café with an hour wait at all times- and doing some traveling here and there, but what I valued most were the conversations I had with my host mother and exchange language partner, my classes where I learned about the literature and history of Spain, spending quieter evenings with friends and even the adventures I took by myself. When I couldn’t find the company to do the things I wanted to do early on, I would go places on my own and do my best to integrate myself with the local culture, often getting lost in the narrow winding streets. I became more confident as an individual presence in the world since I intentionally put myself in situations where I had to fend for myself, so to speak, and could make decisions and try new things independently.  Fortunately, I did manage to make friends after a little while and I loved getting to know people from other schools, comparing our experiences abroad and raving about favorite places and awkward encounters – like when a Spaniard threw bird seed before my feet causing a flock of pigeons to scatter around me. I learned that by committing to speaking Spanish at every opportunity I became competent having conservations with native-speakers and it started to come very naturally to me, more so than I could have expected.

The semester went by in the blink of an eye and I haven’t been able to fully process exactly how much I learned and how I changed from the experience yet, but I suppose that’s a reason for me to go back, as if visiting Sagrada Familia again weren’t enough.


Recap of the past month

When I decided to make this blog the first week I arrived in Spain, I pictured myself setting aside some time every week to recount everything I did. Unfortunately, I’ve neglected to do so for a while. Studying abroad certainly offers many new opportunities and I have been busy with these, as well as midterms which are now over. Regardless, I have done so many cool things and I still want to share a little about them.

I am lucky to say that I get to see new and exciting places on the daily, but there was one especially cool place that I visited with my architecture class a few weeks ago. I love this class because our professor always takes us to less well known sites around Barcelona, and one of these places was Casa Lleo Morera, designed by Lluís Domenech i Montaner (I know this now because I completely blanked on the architect’s name during the midterm and had to look back at my notes after). I had never seen an apartment like this in my life. The house was built in 1905 for a wealthy aristocratic family and there are details throughout that reference the family name and history. There are sculptures along the ceiling that tell the story of an infant being tragically dropped into a fire by the nanny and then miraculously reviving, representing the death of the family’s firstborn child. There were also flower patterned tiles along the floor that were individually made by hand, and referenced the family’s last name. The apartment also had unique features that were apparently characteristic of the time in Spain, including a designated entertaining space and a private space for the family, as well as separate gender bedrooms. The kids rooms were upstairs in a completely different apartment where they were looked after by a nanny, which also shocked me. This house has an amazing stained glass wall in the sunroom that overlooks a courtyard in the back. I have included some pictures so you can see the space for yourself.

I’m not going to detail every little place I’ve seen, but I will mention a few of my other favorite ones:

1. Collserola Natural Park: I went on a little hike here one Friday with a group from my program. One thing I love about IES is that they offer lots of events on the weekends that go to places I otherwise probably wouldn’t know about. This park/mountain has really nice trails and views, and we went on a beautiful day.

2. Parc de la Ciutadella: This is a large park in the center of Barcelona and the perfect place to spend a Sunday. There are fountains, a giant elephant sculpture, a pond in the middle where you can rent paddle boats, and a place to sit down for a drink. I’ve been there a few times to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, and I love it because there are always lots of people walking around and doing the same. I even saw some people doing acrobatics together in the grass.

3. Palo Alto Market: This is a market that takes place the first weekend of every month, and there are lots of booths with art and artsy products to appreciate, as well as lots of spanish foods to try and live music. I had spicy empañadas here and a mini cupcake.

4. MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art): I had been meaning to visit a museum while I was here and finally made it to MACBA. I unfortunately had a bit of a headache the day that I went, but the art was still captivating. I learned that when the museum was built, they didn’t have an art collection in mind, and the outside/building itself was the focus because the community felt that every metropolitan city ought to have an art museum.

5. Montserrat: I was lucky and had the chance to visit Montserrat twice. The first time I went was when my parents were here. Tangent ~ My parents were here for a week and I had the best time with them. In a nutshell, we had some tasty dinners together (one was on the roof of a mall that overlooks Montjuic!), went to a market near their apartment, saw cheese flowers being made, ate chocolate & churros, made pizza one night, visited Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, and then they had other adventures while I took tests. At Montserrat we rode in a cable car up the mountain and visited the church, which was very dark and gloomy on that rainy day, but beautiful at the same time. I went again with my program last weekend and hiked around the mountain and was able to see the group of choir boys who live their sing. The church was overflowing with people to hear them, and if you were there you would understand why. It was truly amazing.

A few other highlights that I have to mention were seeing a light show one night, which is hard to describe but basically consisted of “dancing” light beams that were cast on a bank. I also saw a live Castell performance, which I described briefly in a previous post. There were five different groups of castell performers, and some had up to eight levels of people. I saw a Flamenco show, went on a sunset sea cruise (both with my program), hung out at the beach, visited Tibidabo and took a quick trip to Valencia. Needless to say, I have been quite busy.

I was a little overambitious when I told myself that I would make a weekly post, but I intend to write a few more in the next month and a half. I will keep you posted (get it?). Until next time.

*my computer is having trouble uploading photos but I will add them as soon as I can*


Week 3 & Week 4: Lots & Lots of Adventures

Hola amigos!

I am sorry I haven’t lived up to my weekly post promise (and I’ve only been in Barcelona for a few weeks…) but let me add that I actually am very busy and have done so many new and amazing things over the past two weeks. I will do my best to keep this concise.

Last Wednesday I attended my first soccer game. Barcelona played against a team called Valentis Athletica Soccer Club. It was a close game, and Barcelona ended up winning in the second half! I’m no sports connoisseur, but I was engrossed in this game for several reasons. Unlike baseball or football games in the U.S., the stadium did not have large screens that showed a close up of what was happening on the field, so there wasn’t really an opportunity for distraction. The culture of the spectators was unique as well, because I didn’t see anyone on their phones and no one was eating anything from the concession stands. This was interesting, because as soon as my friends and I arrived at the game we headed straight to buy popcorn and drinks, where we found some fellow americans doing the same and asking us if we knew about the wifi.  As someone with no coordination, I was also fascinated by the fluidity of how the players interacted so effortlessly with ball and each other. That might sound corny because they’re professional athletes and they should know how to kick a ball, but it was captivating and I couldn’t take my eyes off the game for once.

Over the weekend I went to Madrid on a trip with my program. We took a high-speed train to get there which was also a first for me, and surprisingly a very smooth ride with beautiful views of the Spanish countryside. We went on several walking tours past the main city streets that lead to Madrid’s Capital, around the Royal Palace and Buen Retiro Park. The Royal Palace of Madrid is spectacular in its grandiose, with statues on top of it and an extensive courtyard. Buen Retiro park seemed like the social hub of the area, at least on the warm Sunday afternoon that I was there. There is a large pond where people can rent out paddle boats and a birdcage-like structure called Crystal Palace designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco beside it. We also visited El Prado and Reina Sofía Museums, which had selections of religious art pieces and more modern pieces respectively. My favorite paintings from El Prado were “The forge of Vulcan” and the famous “Las Meninas,” both by Diego Velazquez. I also really liked “The Gypsy Way of Walking” by Anglada Camarasa and “The Endless Enigma” by Salvador Dalí at Reina Sofía. Our tour guide pointed out a few hidden double-representations and subtleties in the Endless Enigma relating to the subconscious, so I will include that painting at the bottom and you can see what you think.

On Wednesday, Lydia arrived in Barcelona from Egypt en route to Argentina! We had dinner at a restaurant called Flax&Kale and tried grilled watermelon with mozzarella cheese, which turned out to be delicious. Then we visited La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell on Friday. Sagrada Familia is a massive and incredibly beautiful church that was designed by Antoni Gaudí (the same architect who designed the art at Park Güell). Light pours into the Sanctuary through stain glass windows, and the ceiling is covered with dome-shaped symmetrical patterns. It is such an incredible sight. On Friday night we went to a restaurant called TapaTapa where Lydia got to try -you guessed it- Tapas for the first time. We went to Labyrinth Horta on Saturday to finish the visit, which is a large park with a maze of hedges and paths. It was so fun to see my sister midway through her year of travels.

I’m not sure what’s in store for next week yet, but I will fill you in soon. Do whatever it takes to hang in there while the suspense slowly kills us all.

(You can see some pictures I took below to get a better idea of what I’m talking about)


Week Two: Trip to Tarragona

This past weekend I went on a trip to a city called Tarragona with the IES group. Every piece of information during the trip was relayed to my group in Spanish and at the Spanish-speakers’ natural speaking pace, so it was challenging for me to pick up on everything I heard, but I still really valued these experiences and learned more about the Catalan culture.

We left for the journey on Saturday morning, and the first placed we visited was the Poblet Monastery, a Roman Catholic monastery that was designed by Arnau Bargués and established in 1151. I don’t know too much about architecture -I am in a class now and excited to learn more- but based on my indisputable familiarity with churches, I noticed many elements that seem traditional to me. These included many crosses (surprise) and long arched stone hallways that formed a square around an interior courtyard with a fountain, where the 32 monks that currently reside there wash their hands before they eat a meal. One of the rooms that I especially liked during the tour was the library, although we were not allowed to walk inside. The sanctuary itself was also very beautiful and had a section of pews facing each other near the alter, designated for the monks to worship, as well as a larger section of pews behind a divider that face the alter and are open to the public to attend services. There were also stone tombs with sculptures of twelfth and thirteenth century influential figures who were involved the church. It reminded me of several of the cathedrals that I remember seeing during my visit to London two summers ago.

Later on that day we visited the Roman ruins of Tarragona, which were quite extensive. The first landmark we saw  was a giant arena where the Romans frequently held large events and performances that were open to the entire city for free. This arena was used for a variety of different purposes throughout history, including a prison. (Again, I want to emphasize that these tours were completely in Spanish, so I had a compromised understanding of everything I heard.)

On Sunday morning, we went to a workshop where we learned about “Castells”, which are essentially human towers. I had honestly never seen or heard of anything like this before, but this performance is a prevalent practice and important aspect in many European cultures. During the workshop we watched footage of these human towers in action, and then learned the method behind it and got to practice building them as a group. It turns out that the very bottom layer of people require an immense amount of support, which is done by packing many people close together surrounding three to five central people who stand in a circle and link arms, as the upper levels are visibly doing in the picture found at the bottom of this page. I experienced the weight firsthand as a “crutch” on the bottom layer, which meant that I had to wedge my head under someone’s armpit and support the tower from my shoulders for (ten?) minutes – you kind of lose track of time when you’re in that position.

The trip ended with a three-hour Mediterranean lunch where we were served artichokes, chicken and long roots with a skin that you peel and then dip in sauce. It a was great day.

(Pictures below: From the top left is the courtyard at the Poblet Monastery, the library, the Roman arena, a tree that is right beside the large arena of roman ruins with strange-looking roots, a tunnel that interconnects the ruins, an overhead shot of more ancient ruins, and an example of a “castell” from Google.)

My First Week in Barcelona

Hello Friends,

I have been in Spain for a week now and have already seen and done so many new things. I am living in the center of Barcelona in a home stay with a woman named Pilar and two other girls in my IES Abroad program. Every night Pilar cooks us a huge three course dinner that we eat together while conversing in Spanish. She has served us chicken, vegetables, soup, potatoes, tortillas, and even made us some wild rice that I brought from Minnesota. The dinners are always delicious and leave me feeling like I will never have to eat again. Unlike in the U.S., here in Spain people tend to eat dinner much later, so we usually eat at around 9pm.

During the first few days in Barcelona my program had orientation sessions to help everyone adjust to the cultural differences and prepare us for classes. They explained that here people don’t really eat in public outside of restaurants, so we will not be allowed to bring snacks or even coffee to class. This is a bummer given that I have a 9am class twice a week and depend on coffee a lot, but this morning my professor explained that they do this so they can enjoy being present and focus on one thing at a time, a philosophy that I have to say I admire. They also warned us to be aware or pick-pocketing and to be mindful of our things, which included a demonstration about showing your backpack “love” by hugging it in your arms while walking to class. Spanish classes started on Monday and are the most time-consuming since we meet every Monday – Thursday to practice, and area classes started today (Wednesday).

In the time between orientation and classes starting, I was able to visit the famous Park Guell for the first time, a beautiful landmark of Barcelona that overlooks the city and the ocean. I spent my time at the mosaic wall, which is beautifully vivid and transitions between a seemingly infinite variety of patterns and designs that cover the entire wall/bench. I almost felt like I was in a painting the way the colors of the glass highlight the colors of the ocean, sky and the rest of the city’s buildings. I wasn’t able to see all of the park but I will definitely be going back to spend more time there as it is a really special place.

Between figuring out how to order food in Spanish without soliciting a response in English, developing a mental map of how to get back to my apartment (that covers maybe six blocks), and learning how to use the metro, I would definitely say that I have been adjusting to life in Barcelona and really enjoying everything here so far. This weekend I will be going on a “study journey” to Tarragona with my program, and I will write a post on that when I return.

(Below are some snaps of the patterns I really loved on the wall at Park Guell. Excuse the weird angle of the picture on the left; this pattern was on the back side of the bench -which is in on the edge of a large drop- so I couldn’t capture it as well as I wanted to.)